Starring (voices): Chloe Grace Moretz, Mary Steenburgen, James Caan, Darren Criss
Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Violent Action and Partial Nudity
I've long praised Studio Ghibli for its daring filmmaking, artistic brilliance and rich storytelling. Such bold risk-taking has led to some truly amazing films, such as "Grave of the Fireflies," "Princess Mononoke" and "The Wind Rises." It has also led to the creation of "Spirited Away," which is not only the best animated film ever made, but one of the best films ever made period. But this comes at a cost; eventually you're going to make a movie that doesn't work.
"The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is not a bad film, but it is a disappointment. It is perhaps the weakest film released under the Studio Ghibli name. Although the animation is eye-popping, the story is weak and the film is overlong. And the ending just lost me. I'm not mad at having wasted my time, but I feel let down.
The Bamboo Cutter (Caan) is a simple man living a simple life with his wife (Steenburgen). One day while out cutting bamboo, he sees a glowing bamboo tree. In front of it is a tiny sprout that grows before his eyes. Inside the blossom is a tiny little girl that fits in the palm of his hand. He takes her back to his wife and, to their surprise, she suddenly turns into a normal sized baby. Dubbed "Little Bamboo" by the local children, she grows rapidly and forms a tentative bond with a boy named Sutemaru (Criss). Their fortunes change when The Bamboo Cutter finds another glowing bamboo tree, only this time it's filled with gold. Believing that Little Bamboo is destined to become a princess, he uproots their family and heads for the capital. There, the Bamboo Cutter becomes obsessed with the trappings and status of wealth, including marrying his daughter, now named Princess Kaguya (Moretz) to the wealthiest person he can. But Princess Kaguya has a secret that could compromise everything.
The two leading forces behind Studio Ghibli are Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. It would be an overstatement that they brought anime to the mainstream (it was popular long before Studio Ghibli was formed and is still a cult thing), but they have done more than any other filmmaker in the medium. Though not as talented as Miyazaki, Takahata is a capable filmmaker. Too often, however, his vision exceeds his grasp. He sometimes attempts to do too much, which was the case with "Pom Poko." "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Only Yesterday" worked because he kept things simple. With this, there is a sense that it is overstuffed with material. So much so that there is little plot consistency. It is always continuously evolving and I was struggling to keep up.
The voice acting in the American version is adequate, but like all Studio Ghibli movies, it's kept low-key. Chole Grace Moretz is inconsistent; usually she's okay, but there are times when she can't reach the correct emotion or is too modern for a fable. James Caan and Mary Steenburgen are unrecognizable in their roles as the parents. Darren Criss, Lucy Liu, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, Beau Bridges, George Segal, John Cho, Dean Cain and Daniel Dae Kim lend their talents in small roles.
Studio Ghibli is famous for its vivid, colorful artwork. Who can forget the bathhouse in "Spirited Away" or the walking castle in "Howl's Moving Castle?" In a complete 180, Takahata opts for a more minimalist approach. He uses a simple, watercolor aesthetic with limited, muted colors. It adds to the cerebral quality indicative of his work, as opposed to Miyazaki, whose complex and detailed works are more emotional. Also gone are the huge eyes and traditional anime characters. In fact, the drawing style reflects the tone of the story. Usually it's simple and dream-like, but there are moments of high tension where the drawing is more rough and aggressive. Rarely does the art form reflect the material in this way.
So it doesn't work. But with Studio Ghibli on the title, you at least know that it's not going to be a total waste of time. There are many elements of the film that do work. Some are even praise worthy. But I really can't encourage you to sit down and watch it. Especially when the studio has released other, better films.